At 18 years old, South African middle-distance runner Caster Semenya burst onto the track and field world stage when she took gold in the women’s 800m at the World Championships in Berlin, Germany.
However, her record-breaking run was immediately met with controversy and contempt rather than the celebration she rightfully deserved.
The backlash revolved around her speed and appearance.
That was followed by questions relating to her sex and gender.
Fellow athletes, the sports media, and governing bodies such as World Athletics alike all felt entitled to target Semenya and her body.
“Just look at her,” said Mariya Savinova of Russia, who would have her 2012 gold medal win over Caster Semenya stripped later after she was found guilty of doping.
Elisa Cusma Piccone of Italy took it a step further and denounced Semenya’s 2009 victory altogether.
“For me she is not a woman. I’m also sorry for the other competitors…It is useless to compete with this and it is not fair.”
Caster Semenya is a woman. A Black (sports) woman falling into the all too familiar trap of having her womanness called into question and her body viewed as too much.
After the vicious attacks, Semenya was forced to undergo “gender testing,” a practice that has haunted women athletes since they began participating in elite sports.
There is an underlying assumption that gender testing protects women from hidden male competitors who want to sneak into competition for what we can only assume is “easier competition.” This theory is linked to the idea that testosterone, which everyone possesses but is most often associated with men, masculinity, and athletic superiority, gives one an athletic advantage.
Caster Semenya has a condition known as hyperandrogenism, which results in her body producing higher levels of testosterone. As a result, she was required by a 2011 ruling by World Athletics—then the International Association of Athletics—to take medications to reduce her naturally occurring testosterone levels in order to compete.
Semenya, a teenager at the time, felt as though she had no choice.
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